EtC: What did it entail to work as an
anthropologist within the international
response to Ebola?
I went to Guinea with the Global Outbreak
Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and was
part of the Communication Commission. Our
mission was to set up so-called “Surveillance
Committees” in local communities (often based
on already existing local committees) whose aim
is to facilitate communication and cooperation
between communities and (international) health
agencies. The Committees consist of traditional
healers, religious leaders, traditional chiefs and
representatives of community groups such as young
people, the elderly and women. These people are
accepted by the community and enjoy credibility.
More specifically, I went to Macenta where I
worked in a small strategic group with a Guinean
sociologist and a local biologist who had expertise
on how to approach and discuss with traditional
chiefs. We went to villages without interventions
Ebola: an anthropological
voice from the field
and tried to ‘open up the village’, gain their trust
and give them information in order to facilitate
the future work of the Red Cross and MSF contact
tracers. Based on the population’s concerns, we
also tried to indicate where the health workers’
response could be improved to accommodate
cultural preferences. For instance, I helped the
health agencies in understanding how to organize
the cemeteries in a way that is acceptable to all
religions and ethnicities. It is all very sensitive.
While the statistics show that at least 500 extra
places are needed to bury people, they are planning
for only 200 because people get suspicious if we
ask for more burial places at once. Altogether, I am
quite satisfied with the way the health agencies
have taken my anthropological observations into
Séverine Thys, anthropologist and coordinator of the Strategic
Network on Neglected Diseases and Zoonoses at the Institute of
Tropical Medicine. Spent four weeks in Guinea to help contain the
Ebola outbreak. Exchange to Change asked Séverine about her views
on the Ebola epidemic, the challenges she encountered in the field,
and why social scientists’ involvement is essential.
issues and trying to make them understand.
EtC: How should we understand the mistrust
and rumours among the local community?
How did this start?
What is relevant in Guinea is that the outbreak
started in the pre-election period, in a region that
has been against the central government for a
long time (Macenta, Guekedou). People started
to think that Ebola was a plot to eliminate the
opposition and that the disease didn’t even exist.
Other rumours relate to white people wanting
to kill Africans in exchange for money they are
giving to the president (aid from France, USA).